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Church in the doghouse

CHURCHES

Just like in politics, numbers matter in the church. As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has put so many commercial entities in the red, the church in Botswana has not escaped the wrath either. These glaring similarities between the church and world have pushed the former beyond limits and now there is a bone to pick with government.

Just last week, President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi met with men of the cloth, a jaw-jaw that precipitated a decision to increase the number of congregants per church service from 75 to 100 in line with the State of Emergency powers and COVID-19 regulations. The decision by the President is an indication that he has a foot in both camps – that is the church and COVID-19 Presidential Task Team.

But the church is still not satisfied, with some leaders expressing hard feelings over the bunch that met the President. From the latest decisions, it seems the government will open churches to their full capacity in a pi’s eye. In any case this position is expressed in black and white through various press statements from the Task team and individual ministries. Government is hell-bent on containing the possible spread of the coronavirus.

For some churches, such as the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) they have leaned on the Hobson choice – taking what is offered or nothing at all – and they have chosen the latter. The ZCC has also adopted a hush up as per the instruction of its leader, Bishop Lekganyane.

AND HERE ARE THE NUMBERS

A statistical generalisation in Botswana when it comes to church capacities demonstrates thus; St Peters Roman Catholic in Gabane, has a church capacity of 600. In main mall, Christ the King Cathedral Roman Catholic has a capacity of 1300, and in Gaborone West they have close to 1200 capacity.

Eloyi Christian Church in Selibe Phikwe boasts of a 1000 strong membership. On a normal service, The City Angeles Church in Tlokweng has 1500 people attending one service. For Spiritual Healing in Gaborone more than 800 people normally attend in between services; and as for Naledi Church of God in Palapye it has 700 people while Cornelius Apostolic Church has an average attendance of 2000 people in one service. The figures continue to pour in, Olive Church in Metsimotlhabe has more than 2500 members; while Royal Assembly in Gaborone has more than 800 attendees for a normal service. Their membership stands at 1200.

Speaking to this publication, Bishop Raphael Habibo of Assemblies of God confirmed that the 100 per service as recently prescribed is not enough. He pointed out that it would have been better had they been allowed a 200 or 300 ceiling looking at the capacity of various churches around the country.

“We are not in a position to take care of the needs of our people. In terms of counselling, ministering and standing with them during challenging times and financially. We have hired different people in church. When services are stopped it means we are not making enough money to pay these people. We hear the government’s cry but we need to come up with ways of living with this,” he said.

From Bishop Habibo’s interjection, it is evident that the church has an itching palm for purposes of paying salaries, rent, and general welfare issues. In essence the church is saying the 100 capacity command remains in the clouds, it is far from addressing the realities they face.

From the figures shared, it is evident that the church has a Midas touch but the Presidential Task Team on COVID-19 remains in the driver’s seat hence the church’s itching palm may be satisfied in a coon’s age!

While some church leaders agree that the churches do not need to be opened to the brim, they still shoot down the 100 members cap. They argue that they have enough space to adhere to COVID-19 protocols should their numbers be increased to 200 or 300.

The church says it is not only money that will ensure that they keep head above the water. There is a claim that by limiting the number of people may attend church services, emotional strain and depression are taking a toll on citizens. Faith thought leaders also attempt to link emerging worries such as Gender Based Violence and suicides to restrained spiritual interactions. While there is yet to be empirical data to full-proof these assertions as gospel truth, the church’s campaign for more numbers remains just a grasp at straws.

The church is also worried that certain decisions by the Presidential Task team appear to swim against the tide. They cite opening of borders, buses loading full capacity, tourism industry’s leisure travels, and a litany of decisions only explained by the idiom, smoke and mirrors.

CHURCH MEMBERS ARE DEPRESSED

“A lot of people have been stressed and depressed by this season. Having to live with the fear of the chance of contacting the virus or a loved one or colleague being positive is too much. It is at this point that we need to have a closer relationship with God to pray; to be in church and as we sing, we create an atmosphere of hope. People lost their jobs, businesses and for some it will take months if not years to recover.

We have even seen a rise in gender based violence – I would even think it’s indirectly connected to this pandemic. An affected mind facing a situation that is heavy and can’t take it anymore will just lose it and misbehave,” said the President of Royal Assembly Ministries, Boago Ramogapi.

“I wish the government could do “Capacity Seating” while still adhering to COVID-19 regulations of masks and distance between seats. In that case, a building that normally seats 1000 people will be able to take 500 people – there will still be space between the people and strict compliance on masks and sanitising,” he said.

He further highlighted that challenges arose amid the pandemic within the church and the main one was that many people were losing themselves and feeling helpless because they do not have the opportunity to go to church – a place that has an atmosphere to encounter, inspire and vibe peace of mind.

“On top of that, let’s understand that churches are run by the free will offerings of the congregants. Most of the time the offerings are taken when people have congregated. Discussing with some Pastors I discovered that many churches have had serious financial challenges – those renting places of worship, staff members to pay salaries and their usual outreaches to the less privileged were affected. We have banking online platforms to make transactions but they have not yet penetrated that much on the church sphere where people send their contributions to the church accounts,” he said.

When quizzed on the stand of the Ministry regarding the opening of churches, the Minister of Nationality, Immigration and Gender Affairs, Anna Mokgethi said;

“There is no silence at all. My Ministry has been engaged with faith leaders on the issue of increasing the number of attendees at church services. They have made their submissions to the Ministry on a number of occasions and we agreed on the submissions to be made to the Task Force team. Consultations are ongoing.

At yesterday’s COVID-19 Task Force meeting it was agreed that consultations should be concluded and submissions should be presented this coming Monday and a final decision be made.”But from the black and white issued by various Government agencies, capacity seating for churches will come in a month of Sundays!

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The Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP)’s decision to reject and appeal the High Court’s verdict on a case involving High Court Judge, Dr Zein Kebonang has frustrated the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and Judge Kebonang’s back to work discussions.

JSC and Kebonang have been in constant discussions over the latter’s return to work following a ruling by a High Court panel of judges clearing him of any wrong doing in the National Petroleum Fund criminal case filed by the DPP. However the finalization of the matter has been hanged on whether the DPP will appeal the matter or not – the prosecution body has since appealed.

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Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) top brass has declined a request by Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) to negotiate the legal fees occasioned by 2019 general elections petition in which the latter disputed in court the outcome of the elections.

This publication is made aware that UDC Vice President Dumelang Saleshando was left with an egg on his face after the BDP big wigs, comprising of party Chairman Slumber Tsogwane and Secretary General Mpho Balopi rejected his plea.

“He was told that this is a legal matter and therefore their (UDC) lawyer should engage ours (BDP) for negotiations because it is way far from our jurisdiction,” BDP Head of Communications, Kagelelo Kentse, told this publication.

This spelt doom for the main opposition party and Saleshando who seems not to have confidence and that the UDC lawyers have the dexterity to negotiate these kind of matters. It is not clear whether Saleshando requested UDC lawyer Boingotlo Toteng to sit at the table with Bogopa Manewe, Tobedza and Co, who are representing the BDP to strike a deal as per the BDP top echelons suggested.

“From my understanding, the matter is dealt with politically as the two parties are negotiating how to resolve it, but by far nothing has come to me on the matter. So I believe they are still substantively engaging each other,” Toteng said briefly in an interview on Thursday.

UDC petitioners saddled with costs after mounting an unprecedented legal suit before the court to try and overturn BDP’s October 2019 victory. The participants in the legal matter involves 15 parliamentary candidates’ and nine councillors. The UDC petitioned the court and contested the outcome of the elections citing “irregularities in some of the constituencies”.

In a brief ruling in January 2020, Judge President Ian Kirby on behalf of a five-member panel said: “We have no jurisdiction to entertain these appeals. These appeals must be struck out each with costs including costs of counsel”. This was a second blow to the UDC in about a month after their 2019 appeals were dismissed by the High Court a day before Christmas Day.

This week BDP attorneys decided to attach UDC petitioners’ property in a bid to settle the debts. UDC President Duma Boko is among those that will see their property being attached with 14 of his party members. “We have attached some and we are on course. So far, Dr. Mpho Pheko (who contested Gaborone Central) and that of Dr, Micus Chimbombi (who contested Kgalagadi South) will have their assets being sold on the 5th of February 2021,” BDP attorney Basimane Bogopa said.

Asked whether they met with UDC lawyers to try solve the matter, Bogopa said no and added. “Remember we are trying to raise the client’s funds, so after these two others will follow. Right now we are just prioritising those from Court of Appeal, as soon as the high court is done with taxation we will attach.”

Saleshando, when contacted about the outcomes of the meeting with the BDP, told WeekendPost that: “It would not be proper and procedural for me to tell you about the meeting outcomes before I share with UDC National Executive Committee (NEC), so I will have to brief them first.”

UDC NEC will meet on the 20th of next month to deal with a number of thorny issues including settling the legal fees. Negotiations with other opposition parties- Alliance for Progressives and Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) are also on the agenda.

Currently, UDC has raised P44 238 of the P565 000 needed to cover bills from the Court of Appeal (CoA). This is the amount in a UDC trust account which is paltry funds equating 7.8 per cent of the overall required money. In the past despite the petitioners maintaining that there was promise to assist them to settle legal fees, UDC Spokesperson, Moeti Mohwasa then said the party has never agreed in no way to help them.

“We have just been put in debt by someone,” one of the petitioners told this publication in the past. “President’s (Duma Boko) message was clear at the beginning that money has been sourced somewhere to help with the whole process but now we are here there is nothing and we are just running around trying to make ends meet and pay,” added the petitioner in an interview
UDC NEC has in December last year directed all the 57 constituencies to each raise a minimum of P10, 000. The funds will be used to settle debts that are currently engulfing the petitioners with Sheriffs, who are already hovering around ready to attach their assets.

The petitioners, despite the party intervention, have every right to worry. “This is so because ‘the deadline for this initiative (P10, 000 per constituency) is the end of the first quarter of this year (2021),” a period in which the sheriffs would have long auctioned the properties.

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While Khama has denied that he has undeclared preference to have Boko remaining as leader of UDC, many believe that the two have a common programme, while other opposition leaders remain on the side-lines.

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